In 2003, an astronomer saw a new object in the sky, way out beyond our ninth planet, Pluto. This body was larger than Pluto and became known as Eris. Discovering Eris forever changed the way we view our solar system because it resulted in a re-categorizing of what we call a planet. Pluto and Eris -- due to their comparatively small size and distance from other planets more local to our solar system -- are now in a new, secondary category called "dwarf planets."
In digital advertising, we are at a similar intersection with ad "impressions." Given our improving technology and better understanding of consumer behavior, the advertising industry is now reconsidering how we define an impression in much the same way that astronomers reconsidered the definition of a planet. We now have two types of impressions: served and viewed. Served impressions are served via technical means to a web browser, but a consumer may have never viewed them; Instead, viewed impressions suggest that the ad has been served and viewed by a consumer. Given this re-categorization, perhaps the time has come, as it did for Pluto, that an impression is no longer considered a reliable form of ad response measurement.
This topic is still fresh (and a bit fuzzy) in most people's mind and there are more questions than answers, though the Internet Advertising Bureau appears to be working to sort things out. To help un-muddy the waters, we've put together this brief guide to viewability for digital advertisers.
What's the big deal?
The big deal is this philosophical conundrum: Do advertisers pay for ads that are never seen by consumers? Typically, the answer could be "yes." Digital advertising, like radio, TV, and print is somewhat based on an ad's "opportunity to be seen" by consumers. Just as a radio listener may turn down the volume during an ad or a television viewer may go to the bathroom during a commercial, there is no truly scientific way to count each individual's presence and attentiveness for the duration of an ad. Advertisers are buying the ads' opportunity to be seen or heard by an estimated audience. Impressions are similar. Some ads may appear below the fold -- near the bottom of the web page -- and are never seen by the consumer, much less properly digested, read, or understood. Previously, impressions indicated that the ad loaded into the page -- nothing more. So, this is a big deal. In digital advertising where everything can presumably be measured, why are so many paid impressions not being viewed by consumers?
How are viewable ads measured now?
IAB considers an ad viewable on a desktop computer if 50 percent of the ads' pixels are in view for a minimum of 1 second. For video, 50 percent is required for 2 seconds. For larger display ad units, 30 percent is required for at least 1 second.
Jeff Burkett, a product strategist at The Washington Post, wrote for Digiday his views on what he calls "dark media," where he points the finger at ad measurements firms, claiming they miss out on 30 percent of viewable impressions through failed measurement. He refers to this 30 percent as "dark media" and claims it amounts to fraud by the measurement firm and lost revenue by the publisher who ran the ad. The MRC backs him up (indirectly) by saying that non-measured ads should not be considered non-viewable simply because they were not captured. Burkett told Digiday that it's a "flaw in some vendor's technology."
What's the IAB saying?
It's the Internet Advertising Bureau's responsibility to be an advocate for both advertiser and publisher, and find some common ground by which to accurately measure an ad's performance. For Randall Rothenberg, president and CEO of the IAB, a Town Hall in late 2014 was his opportunity to make a definitive statement on the organization's future course of action on viewability. He said, "100 percent (viewability) is currently unreasonable. Why? Because different ad units, browsers, ad placements, vendors, and measurement methodologies yield wildly different viewability numbers." The IAB went on to suggest that 70 percent viewability was more reasonable given inconsistencies in measurement (perhaps indicative of Burkett's 30 percent dark media claim). Basically, some ad formats are not consistently measurable. However, because accurate measurement makes digital more compelling than any other form of advertising, time will tell how quickly we can find an agreeable technology solution. No doubt it will happen…some say it already has.
How is technology being utilized?
Google's Active View is a leading technology that claims to be able to measure 100 percent of ads, giving publishers the ability to charge appropriately for viewed and non-viewed ads. Moat is another that is measuring "in-view impressions," meaning that the ad must be in-view of the consumer for 1 second or more, in alignment with the IAB's new standards. With accurate measurement of an ad's performance, publishers can appropriately charge for the ad without the mystery of paying for non-viewable ads or even non-human viewed ads.
Impact of website and mobile design
Of course, there are others that blame web and mobile design formats that create ad space not mapped to users viewing patterns. Creating ad space below the fold doesn't necessarily drive the type of viewable impressions that advertisers want.
Where do we go from here?
Late last year, the IAB put forth eight recommendations for both advertiser and publisher to find common ground in measurement of impressions and proper viewability. They were heavily publicized and praised, but worth repeating here in full:
IAB principles for 2015 for the road to viewability:
- All billing should continue to be based on the number of served impressions during a campaign, and these should be separated into two categories: measured and non-measured.
- Given the limitations of current technology, and the publisher-observed variances in measurement of 30-40 percent, it is recommended that in this year of transition, measured impressions be held to a 70 percent viewability threshold.
- If a campaign does not achieve the 70 percent viewability threshold for measured impressions, publishers will make good with additional viewable impressions until the threshold is met. Such a guarantee ensures that all paid measurable ad impressions will be viewable at a threshold that both exceeds the minimum standard and falls within observed variances.
- To illustrate how the 70 percent threshold will work, assume: a campaign delivers 10 Million served impressions; of those served impressions, 8 Million were measurable; of the measured impressions, 5 Million (62.5 percent) were viewable. In this case, the publisher would need to deliver 600,000 additional viewable impressions to reach the 70 percent threshold and make good. The agency will be billed for 10 Million impressions assuming full make-good.
- All make-goods should be in the form of additional viewable impressions, not cash, and should be delivered in a reasonable time frame. Make-good impressions should be both viewable and generally consistent with inventory that was purchased in the original campaign. Determination of threshold achievement is based on total campaign impressions, not by each line item. In other words, some line items may not achieve threshold, but others can compensate.
- For large format ads, defined as 242,500 pixels or over, a viewable impression is counted if 30 percent of the pixels of the ad are viewable for a minimum of one continuous second.
- All transactions between buyers and sellers should use MRC accredited vendors only.
- A buyer and a seller should agree on a single measurement vendor ahead of time. The industry aspires to variances of no more than 10 percent between viewability measures provided by different vendors. All stakeholders must avoid costly, labor-intensive, error-prone manual processes of reconciling different sets of viewability numbers, hence the benefits of agreeing on a single vendor.
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